The stories we tell ourselves. How to spot the ones that stop us from doing what we really want!
When I was thirty, I travelled around New Zealand on my own. I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in backpacker hostels and travelled on public transport. I met a lot of 18 and 19-year-old Europeans who were taking a gap year.
They were having a great time, soaking up all the experiences that New Zealand had to offer. But one thing that I heard repeated by those young people really made me think. I still think about it now, 12 years later.
Again and again I heard it, like a mantra.‘I’m travelling now because it’s the last chance I’ll get. When I get home I start university, then I’ll start my career, get married, have children. I won’t have time to do anything like this again until I’m retired.’
I remember at the time thinking how sad this was. They were not even 20 years old and they thought this was the last chance they’d get to go travelling, or to do something a bit out of the ordinary and adventurous. They seemed resigned, contented even, about the fact that their life was like a conveyor belt of activities to be carried out at the right time in the right order. What they made of me, aged 30, not married, no children, taking my second year out from work, I can only guess!
This experience made me wonder about the stories we tell ourselves. Those young people had absorbed the idea that they had to get the adventure out of the way, have a little bit of freedom, then settle down. And they’d absorbed it so well that they spoke about it like it was the absolute truth like there were no alternative ways to live life.
It’s easy to see these stories playing out in other people, much harder to recognise them in ourselves. What unhelpful stories do I tell myself about what I can and can’t, should or shouldn’t do with my life?
How has my life been affected by stories I’ve absorbed from the society I live in?
Recently, as I try to create the life I’ve always wanted to lead, one where I work for myself as an artist and writer, a pernicious little story plays in my mind. Despite the fact that I’ve been sensible for years, working in jobs I’ve not always enjoyed so that I can save money, I’m unwilling to spend that money on giving myself the time to see if I can make my creative life become a reality.
I tell myself that I shouldn’t spend that money, that I will need it for my old age, that I’ll be in poverty when I’m older if I spend it now. So I feel guilty about touching it, and keep looking at jobs to apply for.
The idea of doing those jobs makes my heart sink, and I’m loving this creative self-employed life that I’m leading, but every so often I wake in the night panicking – ‘I need to get a job! I can’t touch that money! I’ll never make a living running my own business, it’s just not realistic.’
This is just one example. I know there are many others…
I ended up travelling around New Zealand with someone I met in a hostel who was much older than me, a doctor who had worked on Greenpeace ships, spent time in the Southern Ocean and had lived a very adventurous life.
I love meeting people like my Greenpeace doctor friend. People like that help me to remember there is a big wide world out there and often the only person stopping me from taking a different path is…me!
Rewriting the Stories We Tell Ourselves
How to Recognise That The Stories You Are Telling Yourself Are Unhelpful:
1. When you say it out loud, it sounds like something your parents / teacher / friends would say. You might even hear a particular person’s voice in your head when you say it. Ask yourself, ‘do I really believe this?’
2. You keep hearing your story in the media. An example of this is during the recession, we kept hearing that ‘everyone is feeling the pinch’. Of course, although many were, not everyone was. When you hear your story repeated in the media ask yourself, does this really apply to me?
3. You keep doing the things you tell yourself you should do, and you still feel unhappy.
4. You use the words ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ a lot!
5. When you see someone doing the exact opposite of the thing you believe you ‘should’ be doing, you feel strong about it – jealous / angry / sad / upset. Ask yourself why. Is it because you would like to be doing that too?
6. You see someone doing something you would really like to do. You tell yourself ‘I can’t do that because….’, or ‘It’s OK for them because they have….’ or ‘they are doing that now but (insert terrible thing) will happen to them in the future….’ These are your stories. Examine them. Are they helpful? Are they true?
So what stories do you tell yourself? And should we all be looking for new, positive, inspirational stories about how to live our lives?
Please leave a comment and share your experiences of the stories we tell ourselves!